Helped by aggressive marketing and a new generation of conservative Roman Catholics, convents around the country say they are experiencing an increase in applicants for the first time in decades. The women are inspired by Pope John Paul II and his defense of Catholic orthodoxy, and are seeking a life that draws them closer to God.
Anecdotal evidence about the increase has convinced the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which analyzes church trends, that it should start a formal study of the growth.
"It’s not a huge increase, but for a while there was hardly anybody and now there are some, so something is going on," said Mary Bendyna, executive director of CARA, based at Georgetown University.
The number of U.S. nuns dropped dramatically since its peak of about 180,000 in 1965 to 66,600 in 2006, according to CARA. The numbers will continue to decline as older nuns die, even with a recruiting surge – but the decrease could slow.
Sister Jeana Visel, a 27-year-old who joined the Sisters of St. Benedict in Ferdinand, Ind., said, "There is a real yearning for a sense of community these days among people in general," Visel says. "We’re very separated from each other for all the communication devices we have."
Sister Mary McGlynn is among the new recruits. After college, she knew she wouldn’t be happy in a typical office job. "I knew there was something more I wanted," said 23-year-old McGlynn, who joined the Dominican Sisters last fall.
McGlynn, of Tallahassee, watched a promotional DVD and visited the Dominican Sisters Web site before deciding to join.
"That helps a lot because online you can read about the community and see pictures and see what they’re about," she said.
Along with McGlynn, the other new members include a former lawyer and bartender whose average age is 24. The national average age for nuns is in the 70s, according to CARA.
"There’s time every day to be with God and not having all the distractions that are in the world that keep you from God," McGlynn said.
At The Villa, a two-story motel turned convent where about 25 nuns live on the Barry University campus in Miami Shores, the nuns are also changing with the times. Their founders would tell them to "go to the edges," embrace technology, says Sister Arlene Scott, assistant vice president of mission at this coed Catholic school in Miami.
That attitude has helped their order, the Adrian Dominican Sisters in Michigan, attract a handful of new candidates in their 20s and 30s this year. They used billboards and hired an ad agency to research what would appeal to younger women.
"We’re not selling ourselves like we’re worried we’re gonna die out," Scott said. "We’re evolving into something else."
Plenty of girls and young women visit Sister Julie Vieira’s popular blog, A Nun’s Life, which originally wasn’t meant as a recruiting tool. A member of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Monroe, Mich., Vieira blogs about politics, enjoying a beer at a bar and her favorite bands along with religious content, hoping to dispel sister stereotypes.
"A number of religious communities are finding that the Internet is where people are gathering," said Vieira.
"We’re realizing that we need to have a presence there as well."
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the largest religious order in the United States, hired an outside ad agency to design ads for secular magazines like People, along with Internet banner ads.
Yet, it is the tradition of the convent that ultimately attracts outsiders.
Several of the women say they are looking for communities that still wear habits and are rooted in conservative theology.
"It’s a radical way of living," says Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins, of The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tenn.
"When you used to put the habit on, it was conventional. Now it’s radical and I think people want to do something radical with their lives."
The order built a $46 million, 100,000 square-foot addition in Nashville to accommodate 100 new nuns in the past 15 years. Their average age at induction is 24, Hopkins said.
In Massachusetts, the Sisters of St. Joseph in Springfield is hoping to appeal to the broader public by restructuring memberships to include roles for married women and those with no formal connection to the congregation.
They have extended their roles to include people with different levels of commitment to the religious order, said Sister Natalie Cain, coordinator of membership and association for the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Via Beaumont Enterprise